How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) was written as a clarion call for journalists and other professionals who regularly use numbers to report and inform the public to be more intentional in their statistical math accuracy. Tom Chivers, a science writer for UnHerd, a British news and opinion website, and his cousin, David Chivers, an economics professor at the University of Durham, U.K., co-authored the book. Tom became frustrated with the lack of integrity in how news agencies reported statistics during Covid-19, and he decided to take action.
In their book, Tom and his cousin present a case for journalists and the general public to ask more questions about the messages conveyed/consumed when using statistics or other numbers. In the Data Book podcast with Dan Barnett, Tom describes how many journalists ‘cherry pick’ numbers to make headlines – even when the numbers are misleading. According to Tom, many people know they do not understand math and often wear ‘not good at math’ as a badge of honor. As a result, many people do not challenge the numbers served by reporters. However, he is adamant that we cannot have a democratic society without a literate population. He is convinced that when math is broken down into simple language and given better explanations, most people can overcome their fear of math and engage more intelligently with statistics and other data points used in reporting.
There were many examples of how I could relate to the fear of math, misleading statistics, and the badge of honor from my own experiences. And the times I’ve heard the same concerns from students are too numerous to count. However, one personal experience came to mind, and it happened almost a decade ago.
Thinking about how statistics are used to mislead the public – I recalled a TED Talk by Ben Goldacre. The topic was What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe. Although Mr. Goldacre does not talk specifically about statistics or math – he does speak about the clinical trials conducted and how many times the tests are ‘cherry picked’ to present a drug in a favorable light. Consequently, doctors and patients are often deceived, and in some cases, lives are lost.
Several years ago, my mother found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. She decided to undergo a mastectomy rather than worry about other potential lumps forming. After a successful surgery, my mother’s doctor wanted to prescribe a medicine for her to take indefinitely to minimize the risk of the cancer returning.
My Mother called me to ask about the medication. I did some research (fortunately, I had watched Mr. Goldacre’s TED Talk), and I discovered quite a few negative reviews and side effects associated with the proposed medicine. So, I recommended that she not take the drug. Remember, this was the earliest stage of cancer. Additionally, no other cancer was detected, and my mother was in good health for her age. So was the doctor unaware of the risks, was she trying to minimize the uncertainty (which statistics attempt to do – but can never rid us of the uncertainty), or was the doctor participating in a clinical trial and my mother was an unknowing participant? I’ll never know. But I have a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the numbers used in polls, surveys, trials, and prescription medicines.
Lastly, I commend Tom Chivers and David Chivers for identifying a problem and taking action. They highlighted some of the basic problems with how numbers are presented, and they’ve recommended the Statistical Style Guide to establish a foundation for responsible journalist. I will recommend this to instructors teaching Civics classes starting in middle school grade levels.
 Tom Chivers and David Chivers, How To Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) (London: Orion Publishing Group, Ltd, 2021), 2.
 Data Book Podcast https://open.spotify.com/episode/6587RhkUIICncKWcpHX3Po
 Ben Goldacre, What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe*